5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Taking An Ancestry DNA Test

Photo: Courtesy of L'Oreal Blackett.
There are things I know for sure about myself: I get my creativity and confidence from my mother and my love of books and film from Dad, my eyes are all Mum, and my smile and freckles are all Dad. I am Caribbean, both Bajan, and Antiguan, but I am unmistakably British (my Mancunian accent is a dead giveaway). My grandparents came to the UK (with its cold weather and even colder welcome from new British neighbours) in the ‘50s, as part of the Windrush generation. It meant I grew up in the '90s on sugary PG Tips with condensed milk, English breakfasts with plantain, and Sunday roasts with fried dumplings and rice and peas. While these contradictions of cultures always made sense to me, a third-generation immigrant caught between many identities, I’ve always been acutely aware that there is still much I don’t know about my history
When Ancestry DNA reached out to Unbothered offering the opportunity to gain insight into our ethnicities and genealogy, I jumped at the chance without much deliberation (despite the privacy risks of sharing DNA data with genealogy companies). I’ve become insatiable for personal data at a time when companies such as Ancestry, 23 & Me, Hertility, Thriva, Zoe and more are providing customers with a world of personal information — from your family history to fertility health — by simply spitting into a tube or a prick of a finger. So far, I have taken a health DNA test to find out which diseases I may be more susceptible to (and discovered that I’m lactose intolerant and a “natural born athlete”), and a hormone and fertility test revealed concerning information about my gynaecology health. While I’m no stranger to the DNA testing process, finding out the secrets of my ethnicity and family history felt more significant somehow. 
Every Black History Month, I am confronted with both the horrors and heroes from our collective past, from across the Black diaspora. However, I did not yet know the details of my personal ties to the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism, until now. Ancestry DNA offered the team full access to their service, which included the DNA + Traits test and membership (around £79 for the test and £49.99 for a three-month membership). Once I received my results, it not only provided me with a detailed breakdown of my ethnic makeup on both sides of my family but also far-reaching family trees, with names of my great, great, great, great, great, great, grandparents, and new information about my past. No one could have prepared me for the emotional impact of this — here are five things I wish I had known before taking an at-home DNA test. 

Your ethnicity data may renew a sense of pride in your heritage (but there may also be surprises)

I am very proud to be Caribbean with its rich cultures, languages, traditions and incredible food, especially in recent years as I watched Barbados achieve its status as the world's newest republic in 2021, removing the monarchy as the head of state and severing its ties with Britain in a bid to forge its own identity. Nonetheless, like many descendants of enslaved peoples, there’s a deep desire to connect with the life and countries my ancestors were forced to leave behind. When I got my results back, the DNA test revealed I mainly have West African heritage. Though I wasn’t surprised that I am primarily made up of Nigerian, Benin, Ghanaian, and Mali ancestry (enslaved African people in Barbados had been taken from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Cameroon) I had an emotional reaction to seeing the missing pieces of my cultural identity in black and white. Ancestry also revealed I had significant Irish, English, Scottish and European DNA and I found extensive family trees with generations of white relatives. Given both Barbados and Antigua were first colonised by the British in the 1600s (later receiving independence in the ‘60s and ‘80s, respectively), I wasn’t too surprised by this development, however, I still needed time to digest this as a fact of my identity. 
 “As the descendant of slaves, there has always been a piece of me longing to know precisely where I come from,” shared Jessika Hardy, Unbothered’s social producer based in the US, who took the test earlier this year for a recent article. “I’ve always feared losing the many faces and stories that came before me. Ancestry has given me the best gift because being able to trace back my family history was genuinely healing.” For Christa Eduafo, Unbothered’s brand specialist, the test renewed a sense of pride in her Ghanaian heritage. “I am the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants and the granddaughter of a current regional Queen Mother — an inherited position that confirms that at least on her side of my family, my bloodline is 100% Ghanaian. When my results came back as expected, I felt a sense of pride. I love being Ghanaian. It’s kind of a flex to say that I’m Ghanaian through and through!”

Be prepared to find new relatives. Lots of them. 

A few weeks after I took the test, I began to see the details of literally hundreds of cousins, spanning the entire globe. Then my newfound cousins started reaching out in droves. I wasn’t sure how I felt about all these new family connections — whether I should or even wanted to pursue them. It felt like I was opening the door to the unknown and I wouldn’t be able to turn back. For Unbothered’s Florida-based deputy director, Stephanie Long, the test brought her closer to finding relatives she never knew. “I think I may have found my paternal half-sister that I’ve been searching for since my teens,” she said of her Ancestry DNA test results. “... I’ve never met her, and I only have a recollection of a single photo my dad showed me of her when I was in grade school. Will I reach out to her? I’m not sure of that yet, because truthfully, I’m scared! But I’m really excited and grateful that I was able to find her.” 

Remember that it’s not just your history you’re discovering

Taking the Ancestry DNA test soon became a lesson about boundaries — not everyone in my life was happy I took this step. Like many of us who grew up being taught to stay out of grown people’s business, my family only told me what I needed to know about their past plus some fun family anecdotes. But I’ve always struggled to keep my business between the family and God. (It’s why I became a writer). As I became privy to personal records such as birth and marriage certificates and unseen photos, I couldn’t escape the feeling that maybe I shouldn’t know this. I was looking into the private lives of my family who have always remained private. For tests like these, there’s a question about who owns what story. When does your own history stop being yours?

Not everyone gets the answers they are looking for

While the Ancestry test provided me with a wealth of information about my family’s past (including fascinating Windrush records), not everyone has a similar experience with genealogy tests, and those looking to find missing and unknown members of their family aren’t always successful. “I struggled with my identity my entire life,” shared a friend who prefers to remain anonymous. “The test helped provide some answers to my questions but not the full picture. I had to accept that maybe I’d never know the full story of my family history.”

You may become obsessed with building your family tree

Ancestry’s access to vast records, photographs, and more is a playground for the naturally curious, as Unbothered’s Rissa Papillion found. “I have spent the last few days furiously navigating, talking to my father, adding to my family tree, and sharing photos with extended family,” she explained to Unbothered. “My biggest takeaway was that the world of Southwest Louisiana was both simultaneously small as a geographical location but extravagantly large as a weaving and overlapping web of kin.” Similarly, I had become engrossed in building my family tree and, as the branches extended to the 1400s, I felt more connected to who I am than ever before. 

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